Getting Things Off My Chest

My gown is open, my breasts exposed. The room is cold, and I’m tired.

I’m preparing to sidle up to the contraption that is going to flatten and then snap a permanent portrait of each of my breasts when the radiology technician exclaims, “You’re not taking birth control?” There’s surprise in the question, and a hint of judgment.

I’m not going to defend myself yet again, to detail to this stranger about the trials of different hormones in various forms of delivery that all left me depressed, overweight, and completely uninterested in the very thing that I was supposed to now “enjoy” doing without worrying about creating a little life inside of me I hadn’t prepared for, about how my husband and I had to come to rely solely on the condom instead. So I simply answer, “No.”

“When was your last period?”

“March 18.” Her eyes are open wide. “That’s still less than four weeks ago,” I assure her. “I’m due to start this Friday.”

“But you’re outside of the ‘safe period.’ You might still be pregnant. You’re going to need to take a pregnancy test.”

“I haven’t had sex for the past month until two days ago.”

“Yes, but you might still be pregnant.”

“If I got pregnant two days ago, it wouldn’t show up on a pregnancy test anyway!”

She exhales an exasperated breath. “I’m going to have to talk to the radiologist.”

She leaves me alone and I cover myself again. I sit on the chair my purse had been occupying and put my head in my hands. How silly of me to think I could escape getting a mammogram without it being more excruciating than it has to be.

The rad tech returns and announces, “The radiologist won’t let you proceed without a pregnancy test.” She says this as if it’s more of an inconvenience to her than it is to me. “You’re going to have to go to a free clinic and get it done and come back.”

I almost laugh at the absurdity of this. I’m mere yards away from an emergency room and an urgent care clinic. A six-story hospital resides within the confines of the building I’m sitting in. But instead of letting me go into a nearby bathroom and use one of the thousands of pregnancy test that are already sitting in boxes within this facility, I have to redress, relinquish the parking spot that took me five minutes to find (and getting the last open spot in the entire lot was pure luck as it was!), pee in a cup in some clinic across town, return to the hospital and fight for another parking spot, undress, and go through all of this again. And it’s an inconvenience to her?

I shake my head. She knows I’m frustrated. I redress and grab my things and go to the receptionist at the front desk to get the address of the free clinic, and I can tell by the way she looks at me she’s been told I’m a “problem” patient. I ask her in the future to check on these things ahead of time to avoid this kind of inconvenience (and I’m not rude or loud about it — I assure you). She merely nods and hands me a sticky note with the address. No one has apologized.

I go to the free clinic in the low-income part of town. This place is not meant for me. It’s a service meant for those without means, for scared young women who don’t know where else to go.

The nurse who administers my pregnancy test has the right soul for this job. She’s nice. I can tell she’s empathetic to the girls who come in here; I can tell she does her job without judgment. If nothing else, at least I got to encounter her on this hapless journey. She tells me about her family and how both her parents died relatively young within weeks of each other. She says “God is good” without any irony or bitterness; her parents are now together forever. She tells me these things will we wait for my results. The test is negative.

I return to the mammography center. At least they don’t make me wait for everyone else first. A different rad tech administers the mammogram than the one I saw originally. I imagine the first refuses to see me. This one is very clinical; no smiles, no chit chat. She seems a little frustrated that I’m not an expert about where to stand and put my hands and how to position my head. I’m in my early forties; this is only the second mammogram I’ve ever had. I’m a newbie at this — I could use a little patience. She finishes with me and says my doctor will give me the results and walks out, pointing brusquely back at the changing room where my clothes are.

As someone who has three family members who died from breast cancer, getting a mammogram is already a bit of a harrowing experience for me. But this was a nightmare.

I’ve spent the entire day feeling like I’m little more than two inches tall. That everyone in that office felt this incident was completely my fault, brought on by my own ignorance and poor decision making. That I breached some unwritten patient protocol by pointing out the faults of their policy and its handling rather than just going along with it, and that it shouldn’t matter that I had to miss an entire day of work and pay just to come do this. No one bothered to find out why I’m not on birth control — that I might have a legitimate medical reason — and no one offered me any measure of empathy or patience throughout the procedure. No one took any responsibility for making my day much worse than it needed to be.

This was a special place set aside for women to feel secure while undergoing a difficult but necessary test. It was supposed to be a sisterhood. But instead of leaving feeling I had found a temporary family whose comfort I could count on the next time I needed them, I dread the idea of ever going back. I can’t imagine having to face those people next year when I’m due up for my next one. *Shudders* Much less if the test is anomalous and this shall become routine!

I have a clinical background. I know how monotonous the routine can be, how frustrating some patients can be to deal with. But you can’t stop being empathetic. You can’t stop remembering how difficult it is to completely expose yourself to a stranger, to let your most private places be handled and poked and analyzed. You can’t forget that someone is granting you the privilege to learn more about her than even she knows, to be guardians of the most important pieces of knowledge that might determine her ultimate fate.

For Now? I’ll just remember what it cost me to tell the truth. Chalk it under the heading “No good deed goes unpunished.”